Canadian / US failure of collaboration puts Salish Sea at risk

“We need to deal with the impacts of new energy projects at the level of the ecosystem, not just project to project," says wildlife veterinarian Dr. Joe Gaydos, lead author of a new paper analyzing the combined threats posed by six fossil fuel transportation projects in the Salish Sea.

The new study by SeaDoc and the Swinomish Tribe was recently published in the international journal PLoS ONE.

What did they find? Canada and the US need to do a better job collaborating on Salish Sea issues.

The study evaluated the threats posed by each project to 50 species that are important to the Coast Salish people. These include endangered humpback and killer whales, and key food species including seaducks, salmon, clams, and Dungeness crabs.

Gaydos says, “When you look at these projects cumulatively, they have a high possibility of affecting the Coast Salish and everybody else. The environmental impact statements aren’t looking at the threats collectively.”

Although the Salish Sea is an integrated ecosystem, it is shared by Washington, British Columbia, and indigenous Coast Salish governments. When US and Canadian governmental bodies evaluate proposed developments, they rarely take into account projects occurring outside of their jurisdictions.

Coast Salish have long looked at the ecosystem as a whole. “We walk as one with our resources, as they are the spirit within us,” said First Nation Summit Co-Chair and Chemainus First Nation member Ray Harris. “Each day is a blessing when we see our scientists and traditional knowledge teachers sharing and incorporating one another’s information. We see the removal of barriers happening all over the Salish Sea, and this respect of one another allows us to take care of this beautiful place we all call home.”

Rectifying the problem

A solution is within reach. Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Chairman, says, “For more than 150 years, we have lived with the destruction of our resources and environment by a pollution-based economy. It is time for a change, and this can only happen if we work together.”

This study makes it clear that managers need to establish a mechanism for addressing transboundary threats.

Transboundary ecosystems like the Salish Sea, which exist around the world, are vulnerable to cumulative pressures when there is no mechanism for collaborative decision-making.

In the Salish Sea, there is no governing body that requires multiple proposed projects be evaluated for their cumulative impact. As noted in the paper, “This is a failure in coastal ecosystem management that stands to have a direct impact on the Coast Salish and likely on most of the 7 million other people that also depend on this ecosystem.”

Six years ago the Salish Sea was named. It is now time for the governing bodies responsible for the Salish Sea to create an effective system for evaluating threats across the entire ecosystem.

Read the full study at PLoS ONE.

News coverage is here.

For more background, see an article by Lynda Mapes at the Seattle Times, Northwest tribes unite against giant coal, oil projects.



Banner photo: bulk carrier and killer whales share the Strait of Juan de Fuca southeast of Victoria, British Columbia. Photo courtesy of Jim Maya, Maya’s Images.

Fishes of the Salish Sea

Dragons and Vipers and Opahs, Oh My!

Sailfin sculpin by Joseph R. Tomelleri
Sailfin sculpin by Joseph R. Tomelleri

The Salish Sea's famed salmon have a lot of interesting company beneath the surface. From the gumdrop-size spiny lumpsucker to the world's second-largest fish, the basking shark, we've long known our inland sea was home to an amazing range of fish species. However, it wasn't until an exhaustive new SeaDoc-funded study set out to document every species of local fish that we fully understood the diversity of these rich waters.

The study, by Ted Pietsch and Jay Orr, revealed more than three dozen fish species not previously known to inhabit the Salish Sea, adding such notables as the leopard shark, Pacific hagfish and lowcrest hatchetfish, and raising the number of local fish species to 253. Another "new" native, the opah, is a freckled orbicular oddity and one of the only known warm-blooded fish.

Beyond the wonder of knowing we share our Salish Sea with the opah and other fantastical creatures like the ribbonfish and daggertooth, and that our abyssal depths twinkle with such bioluminescent stars as the flashlight fish and viperfish, we now have a definitive list that allows us to more accurately choose which fishes best serve as indicator species — the canaries in the aquatic coal mine — to track the health of the entire ecosystem. It will also tell us when invasive species invade, and if any native fishes disappear.

This important paper proves once again that when it comes to restoring the Salish Sea, good science and SeaDoc donors really count.

Download the paper

Fishes of the Salish Sea is an open-access publication of NOAA, available for download from the SeaDoc website or from the NOAA website.

The PDF includes about a dozen incredible drawings of local fish.

More details about the study

This study is part of a long-term effort by SeaDoc to document the fish and wildlife that inhabit the Salish Sea.

In 2011, Joe Gaydos and Scott Pearson published "Birds and Mammals that Depend on the Salish Sea: A Compilation" in Northwestern Naturalist. That paper established a baseline list of species, and has been cited numerous times in both peer-reviewed and technical papers.

Now we have a complete list of fishes. At some point we hope to take on the daunting task of cataloging the 3,000+ species of macro-invertebrates.

Knowing which species use an ecosystem and how they make their living is fundamental to restoring it.

Why is this so important? With this list, scientists will be able to document the occurrence of new species and the disappearance of existing ones. The list will be a key baseline for Salish Sea recovery. At the same time it will help scientists select particular species as indicators of ecosystem health, and it will provide a basis for identifying the mechanisms responsible for marine fish declines.

Funded by private citizens

Like many SeaDoc projects, this one was funded by individuals with a commitment to the health of the Salish Sea. Thanks to our forward-thinking donors for understanding the importance of this effort and making it possible.

Blacktail snailfish by Joseph R. Tomelleri

Blacktail snailfish by Joseph R. Tomelleri

Searching for young of the year rockfish

When you have fish that can live from 80 to 200 years, depending on the species, recovery can be a slow process.

That’s the case with some of the 27 different rockfish (Sebastes spp.) in the Salish Sea. Many species were over-harvested and are now in need of recovery.

One important strategy is protecting the old females who produce copious young. But rockfish don't birth a big crop of babies every year. (Yes, rockfish give birth to live baby fish.) Instead they seem to have periodic "bonus" years when numerous rockfish babies are born. As a result, it is really important to know when these massive birth years of young rockfish occur and understand the type of habitats those juvenile fish need to survive.

SeaDoc is working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, REEF, and others to help NOAA design a citizen-driven project where SCUBA divers can collect data to help us learn more about newborn rockfish, known as "young of the year."

Last month, NOAA project lead Dr. Adam Obaza came up to the San Juans to dive with SeaDoc to test out the new dive protocol. Joe Gaydos, Dr. Obaza, and Jen Olson dove in kelp forests, eelgrass, flat muddy bottom sites and rocky reef sites to look for young rockfish and test out the survey methodology.

Jen Olson, Dr. Adam Obaza & Dr. Joe Gaydos

Jen Olson, Dr. Adam Obaza & Dr. Joe Gaydos

Young rockfish are rare, but we did manage to find one young of the year rockfish - a baby Copper rockfish hanging out in some Laminaria sp. kelp near a rocky shore. As things are with science sometimes, it was in the last few minutes of the last dive of the weekend.

We will keep you posted as NOAA rolls out this volunteer SCUBA opportunity in case you or friends want to be involved.



Banner photo: young of the year Copper rockfish (less than 5cm). Courtesy of Janna Nichols.

Studying contaminants in edible seaweed from the Salish Sea

How safe is wild-harvested seaweed to eat?

Seaweeds are a nutritious source of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. The harvest and consumption of various species of seaweed has historically been, and continues to be, important for the Coast Salish, and is gaining in popularity with non-tribal citizens interested in wild foraging.

Unfortunately very little data are available on the levels of contaminants in local seaweeds, leaving native and non-native consumers of this food source in the dark about whether they are harvesting healthy nutritious food or are being exposed to potentially harmful contaminants.

A new SeaDoc Society study, funded by generous private donations, will test for the presence and concentration of three classes of contaminants:

  • heavy metals
  • organochlorine pesticides and pollutants (like DDT, PCBs, and PBDEs)
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Samples will be collected from sites considered safe and those considered potentially hazardous. They will be analyzed at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory at UC Davis.

Results will be shared with volunteers, tribes, and the Washington Department of Health.

Jennifer Hahn, author of the famous wild foraging book Pacific Feast (also an Adjunct Professor at Western Washington University) and SeaDoc's Joe Gaydos are collaborating with Robert Poppenga, a toxicologist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, on this project.



Banner photo: Bull kelp by Dan Hershman via Flickr Creative Commons 2.0

Economic benefits of SCUBA diving in no-take marine reserves

There’s convincing science that no-take marine reserves help recover rockfish, abalone, and other threatened or endangered species that call these rocky habitats home. But what are the economic costs and benefits of marine reserves?

Most of the existing data is about the costs of marine reserves. For example, marine reserves limit fishing, and therefore have a negative effect on the commercial and recreational fishing industry.

But very little is known about the economic benefits of no-take marine reserves.

A new SeaDoc project will quantify the economic benefit of appropriately designed no-take marine reserves to the SCUBA diving industry and local economies.

Over 100 dive shops in Washington and British Columbia train and equip thousands of divers annually. These recreational divers spend handsomely to maintain their certification, purchase equipment, travel to dive sites, procure lodging, and pay for dive charters. But no one has ever conducted an economic valuation of SCUBA diving in the Salish Sea.

Resource decisions are often a trade-off between benefits to the target species and economic impacts to the people that rely on them to make a living or for recreation. Missing from this trade-off is a proper accounting for the extra economic activity that can be created by an effort to save fish and wildlife.

Project results will have a direct impact on efforts by NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife as they consider the merits of establishing a network of no-take reserves for rockfish recovery. Results will also be shared with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada as they re-evaluate the effectiveness of their Rockfish Conservation Areas.

This project is sponsored by a generous private contribution, without which it would not be possible.



Banner photo courtesy of Janna Nichols.

How science is saving Pinto abalone


Known for their beautiful shells and outstanding flavor, Pinto abalone (Haliotiskamtschatkana, also known as Northern abalone) have been harvested from the Salish Sea for centuries, at least until 1990 when Canada closed commercial and recreational fisheries and 1994 when Washington State closed the recreational fishery due to declining populations. Populations are estimated at less than 10% of the levels in 1978. The existing population is aging without being replaced by younger individuals.

Normally, populations rebound when harvest is closed, but this hasn't happened with abalone.

According to the Puget Sound Recovery Fund, one of the major players in abalone recovery,

Pinto abalone are considered functionally extinct in Washington waters. Natural populations have plummeted and there are too few left in the wild to reproduce successfully. We have reached the point where recovery is not likely without human intervention.

The SeaDoc Society has played a crucial role in the development of a successful hatchery program through several tightly-targeted projects, including a genetic analysis for selection of breeding stock, a study of out-planting techniques that showed us what size to outplant for best survival, and an assessment of the best habitat types for out-planting locations. SeaDoc also has funded studies to look at juvenile abalone use of urchins as a a safe hiding place from predators and the merits of aggregating wild adult abalone to improve their spawning success.

Causes of decline

Photo: J. Bouma
Photo: J. Bouma

Abalone are slow-growing, long-lived marine snails. They live in rocky nearshore habitats. Because their meat is a prized delicacy, they have been victims of over-harvest and poaching. Once their population declined, their recovery has been limited because they are broadcast spawners. This means that they cast their gametes into the water, so without a sufficient density of individuals, fertilization and ultimately reproduction don't happen. Ocean acidification, changes in salinity, and higher water temperatures may potentially affect the viability of abalone larvae or adult shell formation in the future.


Pinto abalone are federally listed as a "Species of Concern" and are listed in Washington State as candidates for listing and as a species of greatest conservation need. In 2013, petitions were submitted by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity to list pinto abalone under the Federal Endangered Species Act. In Canada, pinto abalone are listed as threatened under COSEWIC and the Canadian Species at Risk Act. They are listed as "Endangered" on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.

Watch as a hatchery-raised abalone does a defensive "dance"

SeaDoc's role in recovery programs

Abalone restoration efforts involve many partners, including Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, the University of Washington School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences, Western Washington University's Shannon Point Marine Center, NOAA's Mukilteo Research Station, Baywater, Inc., the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, the Suquamish Tribe, the Elwha Tribe, the Northwest Straits Commission, and the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. SeaDoc's role has been to provide critical funding and scientific expertise to help make sure that recovery efforts have the best chance of succeeding. As with our other projects, we focus on crucial knowledge gaps that can be filled with highly-targeted, relatively small-scale projects.

Genetic analysis: Recognizing that a hatchery program would be doomed if we did not start with the correct genetics in the broodstock , in 2006 we funded scientists at the University of Washington to do a genetic analysis of the pinto abalone populations in the Salish Sea region. The study actually found that there was a cryptic sub-species of northern abalone, meaning that although all Pinto abalone look the same, there is actually a group of them that have different genetics than the rest, enabling correct selection of broodstock.  

Pilot outplanting studies: In 2007, we funded pilot outplanting efforts in order to answer the important question of how the size of juvenile abalone affected their survival rates. Scientists tagged and released 281 juvenile abalone of different sizes at multiple study sites in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They checked on these "outplanted" abalone frequently for the year following introduction and learned some very important information: abalone over 25mm had almost a sixfold better chance at survival than smaller ones. Additionally, the researchers found that abalone were more likely to survive in certain habitats. Obviously, growing the abalone larger means more time (and expense) in the hatchery, but the research showed this extra investment was critical for outplanting success.

Transboundary collaboration: Also in 2007, SeaDoc hosted a transboundary meeting with US and Canadian scientists and managers to collaborate on abalone recovery. Both countries were working on recovering Pinto abalone and this provided an opportunity to share information and establish a long-term working group to collaborate on recovery.

Aggregation studies: In 2008 SeaDoc supported a study to test the viability of bringing wild abalone from disparate locations into close proximity to facilitate successful spawning. This study showed that adult abalone move a lot and for aggregation to work, we likely need to bring them together at higher than needed densities to ensure that enough will stay close for successful reproduction.

Habitat assessment: SeaDoc funded researchers to study different potential habitats. The research showed that kelp areas with abundant crustose coralline algae on the rocky surfaces had the best potential to support abalone.

Grow out studies: In the summer of 2013 SeaDoc helped the Puget Sound Restoration Fund coordinate a project to take hatchery-reared animals and grow them out in protective cages on private docks to increase the number of juvenile abalone that could be reared to release size.

SeaDoc was involved in abalone recovery at early stages, providing essential funding and expertise so the scientists involved could have the resources to design a successful and sustainable hatchery program. In 2011, based on the success of the pilot programs, the NOAA Species of Concern Program funded a half-million dollar program to restore abalone.

How you can help

All of SeaDoc's work to help shape a successful hatchery program for abalone recovery was made possible by donations from private individuals like yourself.

You can be a part of our science-based approach to finding the answers to important questions that will help create a healthier Salish Sea.

Please consider making a donation to support the Salish Sea wildlife you care about.

Or sign up for our monthly newsletter to get timely updates on how our projects are helping protect and restore wildlife populations, from charismatic animals like killer whales to invertebrates like abalone.

Make a donation

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For more information about abalone recovery:

Coastal cutthroat trout in the San Juan Islands

Coastal-Cutthroat-by-J.-Galasow-562-326 (1)Coastal or sea-run cutthroat trout are freshwater fish that also move into the marine waters to feed and are an important recreational fishery in many parts of the Salish Sea. Many people don't think of the San Juan Islands when they think of cutthroat trout, but they were historically caught in the area. Long-standing residents recall a time when these rare fish were much more abundant. While recent work documented cutthroat trout in some streams in the San Juan archipelago, little is known about the current status of coastal cutthroat trout in this area.

Thanks to funding raised from private donors, the SeaDoc Society just awarded a grant to Long Live the Kings to analyze the abundance of coastal cutthroat trout in the San Juan Islands.

With collaborators at the Wild Fish Conservancy, Kwiáht, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Long Live the Kings also will analyze the genetics and spawn-timing characteristics of cutthroat trout from multiple streams in the San Juan Islands to determine if there are unique stocks within each of the multiple watersheds and whether coastal cutthroat trout in the San Juans are a unique stock complex. This work will provide the basis for determining and prioritizing appropriate recovery efforts and measuring results after recovery begins.

Video of juvenile and adult coastal cutthroat trout in streams in the San Juan Islands:

Photo: J. Glasgow, Wild Fish Conservancy

Bears and Barnacles: The Land - Sea Connection

bear cub eating barnacles-Jim Braswell



Why make a list of all the birds and mammals that depend on the Salish Sea? Joe Gaydos explains. (1:18)


Part 2: Why has this never been done before?


In Part 3, Joe talks about:

  • the challenges in assembling the list,
  • how it can help scientists (including SeaDoc's own Dr. Nacho Vilchis),
  • how the list indicates when and how heavily different species use the ecosystem,
  • how they tracked down citations for each and every species, and how fox and beaver have been shown to use the intertidal zones.

At about minute 4:30 Joe talks about how the tidal marsh beavers not only use the marine resources, but also contribute to the health of salmon populations. Pretty interesting stuff.

Click to see a picture of a beaver dam in the Skagit River delta.

Get the Checklist

We've created a printable checklist of all the bird and mammal species that depend on the Salish Sea.

Download a copy

You can print the checklist on two sides of a single sheet of paper and take it with you on your travels.

Read the scientific paper

Click here to go to the citation page where you can find a link to the scientific paper.

The Photographer

Big thanks to Jim Braswell for sharing his extraordinary images. Please visit Jim's nature photography site at where you can see more of his photographs and learn about his photography & photo editing workshops. 

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